Shabarimala Protests: A disgustingly Patriarchal and Casteist Movement!

Balu S. 

The desire to create counter hegemonic ideas is
something which emanates throughout Gramsci’s writing. A concept which he
develops in the process of this mammoth political project is ‘Common Sense’. According
to Gramsci, common sense is everyday thinking which helps us in making sense of
the things around us. It has a past, tradition and is a product of the history
which includes various political discourses. It is also constituted of
contradictory components. Common sense is constituted by notions which are
formed by dominant interests as well as those which are counter-hegemonic. For
example, the desire for a more equal world could be found within the common
sense of an otherwise xenophobic and reactionary white working class
individual. The Malayali-Hindu common
sense also has such contradictory notions. On the one hand, there is a
progressive sense constituted by the renaissance movements, exemplified by lower
caste movements and later Communist movements against land-lordism. On the
other hand, there is continued presence of reactionary components forged by
practice of brahmanical rituals and patriarchy. Of course, the presence of
reactionary elements varies with one’s caste and class position. It is this
reactionary common sense which the current Shabarimala movement is blatantly
attempting to strengthen. Not only is
this movement communal, casteist and goes against constitutional morality, its
historical basis is also extremely flimsy.

The chief demand of the movement is the prevention
of entry of women aged between 10 to 50 into Shabarimala, does not have any
historical grounding. Similar to what Eric Hobswam has pointed, this is an ‘invented
tradition’. Entry of women was banned only in early 1970s by the Travancore Devaswom
board. It got judicial sanction only through a high court judgment in 1991. So
the cry of apologists about an age old tradition being trampled upon by judiciary
is a manufactured one.

This movement is probably the strongest Savarna
reactionary movement since the Liberation struggle against Communist ministry
in 1958-59. There are multiple reasons for stating this. First, true to its
casteist spirit, these protests are led by Nair Service Society (NSS), Pandalam
Royal family, Brahmin thantri of Shabarilamala and Sangh Parivar. While the
Congress has come in support of these protests, their participation has been on
the margins. It is doubtful if any movement in united Kerala has witnessed the
leading presence of a royal family. Such attempts to give legitimacy to feudal
vestiges are unknown in the history of post-colonial Kerala. It is also no
co-incidence that it is concentrated in the south Travancore region where these
reactionary forces have been historically strongest. Moreover, NSS is an
organisation which filed a petition in the Supreme Court merely two weeks back
to repeal caste based reservations in Kerala. The same organisation, in the
most hypocritical manner wants to be the self-proclaimed leaders of the united
Hindu front to save Shabarimala.

Second, if the leaders of the protests were
genuinely concerned about rituals and rituals alone, they would have attempted
to at least conduct protests when rituals which have been historically
associated with lower caste participation were unilaterally stopped in
Shabarimala. Similar to Panthalam Royal family, Cheerapanchira, an Ezhava (largest
lower caste community in Kerala) family, had significant traditional rights
associated with rituals in Shabarimala. But gradually, they were denied these
rights. Until 15 years back, the chief of tribals who reside in the nearby
forest conducted a ritual which was the sprinkling of the temple idol in honey.
Even this ritual was stopped. Apart from this, the entire historical
association of Buddhism with Shabarimala is also eradicated in these protests.
What is therefore created is a very narrow reading of the history of the temple
and its deity through a Brahmanical lens.

Third, what angers these Savarna forces are not even
the ritualistic reformations,  but a
perceived anxiety that the temple will be understood more and more as a public
space, thereby preventing their hegemonic hold over these and several other
institutions. What they fear is a democratization of these structures. It
should be noted that several leaders of this movement staged protests against
the appointment of lower castes as thantris in other temples.

It is precisely due to these reasons that lower
caste organizations like SNDP(caste association of backward caste Ezhavas) and
KPMS(caste association of Pulayas, a Dalit caste) have come against these
protests. It should be noted that in the past these organisations have taken
vacillating positions, sometimes progressive, and at other times regressive. An
example of the latter is their open alignment with the BJP in the last assembly
elections. But surprisingly, in this incident, they have taken a position against
the protests. While the social base of these organisations has been marginal,
their stand on this issue has helped highlight the casteist nature of these

The role of opposition in these protests has been
extremely regressive and disappointing. While, one should not be surprised by
attempts of the RSS to fish in muddy waters, their initial position was in
favour of women’s entry to temples. It was only after the protests that a
volte-face was conducted by them. Even now, the stand of the RSS national
leadership is unclear since they welcomed the Supreme Court judgment in the initial
days. In the most shameless manner, several top BJP functionaries in Kerala
have resorted to even deleting their old face book posts demanding entry of
women in Shabarimala. According to latest reports, it has come to light that
the women who filed the petition in Supreme Court against the ban on women’s
entry in Shabarimala are closely linked with RSS. Despite such revelations, in
the most abhorrent manner, the Sangh Parivar continues to protest in Kerala
against the apparent intervention in temples by atheist communists. Their main
demand is now that the state government has to pass an ordinance against the Supreme
Court judgment. Anyone with a basic understanding of the constitution knows
that the state government can do almost nothing when a judgment is passed by a
constitutional bench. But such facts have not come as obstacles for the RSS in upholding
their fake propaganda. For Congress, their position on the protest is a frail
attempt to get back those Nair voters who have deserted them for the BJP. Some
of their leaders even went on to declare menstruation as impure. These
positions, while they do not show justice to the pre-independence trajectory of
the Congress in Kerala, when they stood firmly with several temple entry
movements, are  consistent with their
positions in post-independence Kerala when they supported  the regressive reactionary elements against
the Communist party.

Nevertheless, amidst these attempts by the
opposition to strengthen the reactionary components of the common sense a firm
resistance to uphold the progressive components of the common sense is carried
out by the Left in Kerala. The position of the lower caste organisations against
these protests has strengthened these attempts of the Left. Despite the mass
hysteria created on the streets of Kerala, a very firm position has been taken
by the LDF government, which is that the Supreme Court’s judgment will be
upheld. It has given ample opportunities to the Left to problematise patriarchy
and brahmanical rituals. It has been a longstanding and valid criticism the
Left has not addressed these issues of patriarchy and brahminical rituals
adequately in the past. Several left leaders are using the situation to expose the
casteist nature of the Shabrimala movement and the need to uphold women’s
rights. Casteist slurs against the Chief Minister of Kerala (Pinarayi VIjayan
belongs to Theeya community, a backward caste) by the protesters involved in
this movement have only resulted in strengthening the Left narrative. Consistently,
the general public is reminded of the renaissance movements in Kerala and the
need to defend its values.

The Shabarimala movement in several ways reminds one
of the Liberation struggle against the first Communist ministry in 1958-59.
Similar to that episode, all opposition parties are united against the
government. While implementing progressive legislations like land-reforms irked
them then, it is the dismantling of a brahmanical patriarchal ritual which
angers them now. For the Muslim League, the fear is whether the judgment and
government’s support for it will spiral similar attempts among Muslims.
Therefore, it is clear that while presently the matter is related to a temple,
the wider debate which it has initiated is about women’s empowerment. However,
the contradictions are also very sharp this time. The future political trajectory
of Kerala will be dependent upon the ability of Left to clinch these debates.
Fortunately, the future looks hopeful. 
The Author is a Ph.D. scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.